At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-8)
This story is sometimes used to defend situation ethics. The argument goes this way: Jesus showed that even though David did what was not lawful, he was guiltless because of the situation he found himself in, and so likewise, the disciples were not wrong to break the law of the Sabbath in their situation of hunger.
But when we look carefully at what Jesus said, we find this argument for situation ethics is flawed.
First, the disciples did not violate the divine law of the Sabbath by picking grain as they walked through a grainfield on the Sabbath. Jesus said the Pharisees had “condemned the guiltless.” The only “law” His disciples violated was the Pharisees’ traditions. The Pharisees were famous for “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
Second, hungry David did violate divine law by eating the showbread (in 1 Samuel 21:1-6), for Jesus said he ate that “which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him.” Jesus gave no approval here of David’s violation of divine law.
By giving David’s example in answer to the Pharisees’ charge against the disciples, Jesus showed the inconsistency of the Pharisee accusers and their perversion of the Sabbath law. The Pharisees were happy to accuse the disciples of fault when the disciples’ actions violated the Pharisee’s man-made traditions about the Sabbath, but would they condemn David, whom they held in high esteem, for what was indeed a violation of the Law of Moses?
Further, Jesus asked them a question that would stump them. Have they not read about how the priests “profane” every Sabbath day by working on the Sabbath? In other words, according to the Pharisees’ traditions, even the priests would be guilty of “profaning” the Sabbath. The fact is the priests don’t profane the Sabbath in their duties; their actions are in fact lawful, even though they are work on the Sabbath.
And another thing the Pharisees missed: “One greater than the temple” is among them, and He is Jesus, the Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath, and it is He and His authority they despise.
At the heart of the Pharisees’ problem was a lack of true devotion to God: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’….” They were a merciless bunch concerned with outward appearances instead of obeying from the heart the will of God.
What are the lessons for us? First, situation ethics, the idea that it’s ok and right to violate divine law depending on the situation, is the doctrine of the devil and has no support in this event. Second, we ought to have the utmost concern for divine law, no matter the situation, and not “teach for doctrine the commandments of men.” And finally, going down the road of man-made doctrines is at the same time a lack of devotion to and a rejection of God’s law.
– Larry Jones